Notes From an Old Sheepherder

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Frank Waters (1902—1995), the writer and ethnologist, attended Colorado College but left shortly before taking a degree — very shortly. According to the account in his autobiographical novel, he was just an exam away. But the snow had begun thudding the windowpanes with a sound "like moths," and Waters was overcome with an urgency, a mystical summons to get up and leave the examination room. He answered it. (One wonders how his academic advisor received the news.) The young man put some gear together, got a horse, and went down to Mexico. In the process, he was granted something far more precious than a diploma.

Stories of individuals who outfox the hounds of "education" and bolt free into the mysterious uninstitutionalized terrain of Education are fairly familiar. There’s Faulkner, flunking freshman English, boozing his way out of a job at the campus post office and then out of academia altogether, taking a night job at a power plant, and writing things his bewildered English teachers would presently be finding on the syllabus. There’s Bob Dylan, fiddling around at the University of Minnesota a semester or two, borrowing a rare set of Woody Guthrie records (in the sense that Huck Finn borrowed things), and lighting out for New York City, where he learned more in a few months than most people learn in a lifetime.

In reality, a formal education can be far less important than the informal one taking shape inside us. Academic hurdles mean very little in themselves. Those who contend otherwise may define themselves by their degrees or look down on those who lack formal education, considering themselves a cut or two above. Yet, they are rarely able to disconfirm Will Rogers: "There is nothing so stupid as an educated man, if you get him off the thing he was educated in."

Real education is difficult to attain in an academic setting alone. If you have ever taught or studied Kerouac’s On the Road, for example, you will know that it is impossible not to look out the window at some point, and consider the futility of trying to grasp in a classroom what could better be grasped in a boxcar. "In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice — in practice, there is." Yogi Berra’s distinction is tonic to those who squat in books, starved of what William Carlos Williams called "the thing itself." Students of Drivers’ Ed can appreciate the vast difference between correctly answering a multiple-choice question on the distance one ought to maintain between oneself and the car ahead, and getting in a car and actually maintaining it. As Thoreau remarked: "To my astonishment, I was informed on leaving college that I had studied navigation! Why, if I had taken one turn down the harbor I should have known more about it."

"Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing. The rest is mere sheep-herding." Ezra Pound may sound irascibly elitist to some, but sounds sensible to those who’ve noticed considerable bleating in the field. The stuff that goes on in a classroom has at least as much chance of snuffing the imagination and paralyzing the mind as it does of bringing them to life. As a teacher, I confess I recognize more truth than exaggeration in Oscar Wilde’s line: "Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching." As a sometime teacher of literature, I wince at Gore Vidal’s recent acidity: "If you want to meet someone who really hates literature, just talk to an academic." The remark stings because all too often it’s all too true. Literature teachers who don’t love literature? Educationists indifferent to teaching? You’re likely to find one in a school near you, very possibly with an eye on Administration.

Is it really a teacher’s first duty to seek out fresh opportunities to do "PD" (professional development or pathetic drivel, depending on your perspective), to attend conferences and keep a file of little certificates to confirm it, to serve on mind-numbing committees, and to perpetually pad a CV with every last grain of the professional dust one’s been kicking up? There is a proliferating breed of educationist, in fact, who understands a teacher’s duty as little else. You may recognize the species as Benchmark Man (Benchmark Person, if you like). Benchmark Man lives to measure, to test, to grade, to make rubrics, to tweak syllabi, to do further research… Within his hive of activity, little time is found for reflection or intuition or love of learning, or even reading, beyond the blanched utilitarian verbiage that constitutes his "field." Benchmark Man lusts after "quantifiable units," unconcerned by John Zerzan’s observation that "the urge to measure involves a deformed kind of knowledge that seeks control of its object, not understanding." Benchmark Man considers himself a professional whose qualifications exempt him from Albert Einstein’s admonition: "Many of the things you can count, don’t count. Many of the things you can’t count, really count." Poor Einstein obviously could have profited from a dose of PD.

Real education seems to be a personal, indefinable, unquantifiable thing that doesn’t require the trappings of a grand institution. Emily Dickinson learned more looking through her bedroom window than contemporary flocks of degree-earning mutton learn gaping for four years into the most sophisticated learning tools ever contrived. Dickinson described her "occupation" thus: "The spreading wide of narrow hands to gather Paradise." Preparation for such an occupation was not necessarily on offer at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, and it is not hard to understand why Dickinson’s stay there was brief. No one has left a more succinct recipe for what matters. Dickinson calls the vital ingredient "revery," imagination, the thing so prone to be missing in canned "education."

To make a prairie, it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

In 1922, a few years before Frank Waters left with his horse for Mexico, Langston Hughes left Columbia University to go wash dishes on a ship. He took a bundle of books along, only to toss all but one (Leaves of Grass) overboard as his ship was leaving port. One can imagine Hughes standing at the rail, turning to the poem about the student who grows restless during a formal lecture on astronomy. "How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick," Whitman’s student persona says:

Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

One imagines Hughes himself looking up at the stars, and the feeling of relief and gratitude welling up in him to know an Education lay ahead.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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